This article explores the women’s interventions in an overlooked eighteenth-century quarrel about how to reform literary teaching in the boys’ collèges. It begins by introducing this quarrel, here called the querelle des collèges, that involved more than 120 actors, just 3 of whom are known to be women. After presenting the quarrel texts written by Adelaïde d’Espinassy; Joséphine de Monbart; and Anne d’Aubourg de La Bove, comtesse de Miremont; the article explores why and how these women engaged in such a highly publicized, male-dominated quarrel. They intervened, the article shows, to redirect public interest in reforming boys’ schools toward reforming girls’ education. And they employed creative strategies to minimize the risk they ran, as women, by quarreling. By embedding their texts in other, existing disputes concerning women, and by engaging creatively with agonistic discursive practices usually reserved for men, these women destabilized this masculine dispute. In so doing, they reclaimed some room in this quarrel (and others like it) for women.
Education was the hot topic in mid-eighteenth-century France. Following the expulsion of the Jesuits (1761–64)—France’s most famous early modern teaching order, which ran more than one hundred collèges—and the publication of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s controversial novel Émile, ou de l’éducation (1762), a great polemic about education emerged. This quarrel was specifically about how to reform literary teaching practices in the collèges, the schools for boys from about eight to eighteen years old, and it was almost exclusively constituted of male actors, including philosophes, professeurs, and parlementaires. Perhaps owing to the fact that this dispute had no single contemporary name (unlike some early modern quarrels), no scholars have yet conceived of it as a querelle, yet a querelle it was.1 This article begins, then, by describing the content, actors, and stakes of this polemic, showing both that it was conceived of as a quarrel at its time of writing, and that it possesses the discursive features we now expect of a quarrel. To make the form of this debate clearer to modern readers, I call it the querelle des collèges.2
At face value, this quarrel had almost nothing to do with women. While French debates about women’s education had been intensifying since the seventeenth century, in particular following François Poulain de la Barre’s publications in the 1670s and François Fénelon’s Éducation des filles (1687), the querelle des collèges mostly overlooked this matter. Surprisingly, though, three women did intervene in the querelle: Adelaïde d’Espinassy (17??–1777?), in her Essai sur l’éducation des demoiselles (1764); Joséphine de Monbart (1750–1829), in Sophie, ou l’éducation des filles (1777); and Anne d’Aubourg de La Bove, comtesse de Miremont (1735–1811), in the Traité de l’éducation des femmes, & Cours complet d’instruction (1779–89).3 As Jean Bloch and Sonia Cherrad note in their recent works on eighteenth-century French writing on women’s education, these authors were among a vanguard of women who amplified debates about girls’ education during the second half of the century. It is all the more striking, then, that they have received such little critical attention.
The second part of this paper shows how these women engaged with the querelle des collèges but quickly moved beyond its usual concerns toward parallel educational matters that affected women—matters that were the subject of existing quarrels, such as the querelle des femmes and the querelle du roman. By situating their texts at the intersection of several quarrels, Espinassy, Monbart, and Miremont refuse to be bound by the male-defined parameters of the querelle des collèges. These women challenge the very premise of the querelle, namely, that it is boys’ education that urgently requires reform. Moreover, by rhetorically denying that they are quarreling, and by subtly modifying certain male-defined norms of agonistic discourse, they negotiate a space for women in this polemic.
In that they exceed the thematic and discursive bounds of this dispute, one might question whether Esinassy, Monbart, and Miremont are participating in the same debate as their male counterparts, or even whether they are quarreling at all. This article will show, however, that they are, and in ways that are both creative and strategic. By connecting the querelle des collèges to existing disputes concerning women, and by engaging creatively with agonistic discursive practices usually reserved for men in this period, these women destabilize a dispute otherwise exclusively written by Frenchmen, about future Frenchmen; in so doing, they reclaim a degree of power for themselves, and for other women.
The Querelle des Collèges (1762–89)
The querelle des collèges was a dispute about how to reform literary teaching in the French collèges that began in 1762, following the expulsion of the Jesuits and the publication of Rousseau’s Émile, ou de l’éducation. However, many querelleurs traced the origins of their dispute to 1753 and to Jean le Rond d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie article “Collège.” D’Alembert attacks the collèges, often run by religious orders.4 He claims that a collégien spends years learning almost nothing but Latin, via pedantic exercises of translation and composition, and leaves school with “la connoissance très-imparfaite d’une langue morte, avec des préceptes de Rhétorique & des principes de Philosophie qu’il doit tâcher d’oublier” (635). D’Alembert argues that such knowledge is useless to most boys in their future professions (and therefore useless to the nation). Instead, he would have pupils spend most of their time studying French. In an eighteenth-century echo of the querelle des Anciens et des Modernes, d’Alembert wishes “qu’on ne se bornât pas à lire des auteurs anciens, & à les faire admirer quelquefois assez mal-à-propos; qu’on eût le courage de les critiquer souvent, les comparer avec les auteurs modernes, & de faire voir en quoi nous avons de l’avantage ou du desavantage sur les Romains & sur les Grecs” (637).5
This article was not an intervention in the querelle des collèges at its time of publication; in 1753 the querelle did not exist, nor was it created by immediate reactions to d’Alembert’s article. However, as Robert Granderoute suggests, and as I argue elsewhere, d’Alembert’s article was dragged into the querelle in the 1760s, 1770s, and 1780s by writers who, in hindsight, saw in it the beginnings of their dispute (Ce qui s’enseigne 108–10, 163–66). D’Alembert raises many of the questions that were later debated in the querelle: Should French authors be taught instead of the Latin classics, and if so, which? Which pedagogical exercises would teach the skills of taste, judgment, and eloquence? What sort of boys should attend the collèges, who should their teachers be, and how should these teachers be recruited and trained?
The latter became a critical matter following the expulsion of the Jesuits, which reached its peak in 1762.6 By this date the Jesuits ran more than 100 collèges: around a third of those in France, and the largest proportion held by a single order.7 The suppression of the order left tens of thousands of boys without teachers. France had a crisis on its hands, but this crisis also presented an opportunity: with the Jesuits gone, their teaching practices discredited, collège-level teaching might finally be reformed. But how? One “solution” that appeared almost immediately, which was not really a solution at all, came in the form of probably the most famous eighteenth-century French text on education, Rousseau’s Émile, ou de l’éducation. With his private, negative education of Émile, which shuns Latin and most book learning, Rousseau rejects the model of communal, literary education promoted by what he calls “ces risibles établissements qu’on appelle collèges” (250). Recognizing the existence of the querelle des collèges allows us to recontextualize Émile and to see it not only as a work that stimulated interest in education, but as one that was itself, in part, a response to growing anti-collège discourse. Indeed, given its publication in May 1762, just as the Jesuits were being ousted, many contemporary readers saw Émile as a polemical intervention in the nascent dispute about how (or whether) to reform the collèges, and they set about responding to Rousseau, and to the crisis created by the Jesuit expulsion, in significant numbers.8 So began the querelle des collèges. As Grimm observed in April 1763, “Depuis la chute des Jésuites et le livre inutile de J.-J. Rousseau, intitulé Emile, on n’a cessé d’écrire sur l’éducation” (125). By 1789, when the French Revolution changed the terms of educational debates, the querelle des collèges had seen over two hundred published interventions.9
For reasons of space, the summary of the querelle here must remain brief, but it is nonetheless helpful to study a small segment of interactions between some of its male actors, to help better contextualize women’s interventions. One of the most influential texts in the querelle was the Essai d’éducation nationale, ou plan d’études pour la jeunesse (1763) by Breton parlementaire Louis-René de Caradeuc de La Chalotais (1701–85). Having been a key campaigner against the Jesuits, La Chalotais, in his Essai, turns to what to do with the collèges now the Jesuits are gone. Like d’Alembert he argues that French, not Latin, should be the focus of a collège education: “Il faut donner le pas à la Langue maternelle: elle est la plus nécessaire dans le cours de la vie” (16). Similarly, he prescribes a syllabus that includes secular French texts—sometimes by living authors, notably Voltaire—on the grounds that “il est honteux que dans une éducation de France on néglige la Littérature Françoise” (69). Boys will benefit from studying modern “littérature,” La Chalotais claims, insofar as it will give them the skills “pour remplir les différentes professions” (7), by which he means elite professions such as lawyers, doctors, clergy. In his view, the sons of laborers, farmers, and tradesmen are not to attend a collège (28).
Shortly after the publication of the Essai, an anonymous pamphlet appeared titled Difficultés proposées à Monsieur de La Chalotais, sur le mémoire intitulé ‘Essai d’éducation nationale’ (1763). It has been attributed to Jean-Baptiste-Louis Crevier (1693–1765), a Jansenist former professor of rhetoric at the Parisian Collège de Beauvais. Countering La Chalotais, Crevier argues that sacred texts offer better models for young people than secular ones (22–24). He is outraged (on behalf of the public, he says) that philosophes such as Voltaire should be deemed modern greats. “Il faut vous le dire, monsieur,” writes Crevier, addressing La Chalotais, “le public sensé est affligé de voir un Magistrat célèbre appeler . . . indéfiniment & sans restriction, Voltaire un génie supérieur” (55). La Chalotais’s and Crevier’s disagreements are, at root, about the nation for which boys are being formed. For La Chalotais, the nation is France, but for Crevier, “l’homme est à Dieu avant que d’appartenir à l’état” (30). On these grounds, Crevier argues that excluding the sons of manual workers from the collèges denies them the chance to become literate, and illiterate children—according to Jansenist beliefs—cannot know God, since they cannot read the Bible (17). God’s subjects require a different sort of literary education from those of Louis XV. Sadly for Crevier, he gained few supporters. In September 1763, in the Correspondance littéraire, Grimm quipped, “je ne sais quel est le triste et plat pédant qui a proposé des Difficultés à M. de La Chalotais, qui est le seul ouvrage digne d’un magistrat et d’un homme d’État que nous ayons vu depuis nombre d’années” (362). La Chalotais’s Essai, meanwhile, was endorsed by fifteen quarrel texts.
In “The Language of Quarrels,” Alexis Tadié identifies a series of linguistic and discursive features that quarrels often—though not always—share. Put schematically, Tadié finds that quarrels generally:
play out in language, or at least involve an initial linguistic act (82);
begin not with an initial statement, but an affronted or contrary response (82);
can be designated by different terms (for instance, in French, “disputes,” “controverses,” “polémiques”) (82);
feature more agonistic than irenic vocabulary (82);
have a judge, even if that judge is designated as being the public (83);
thrive on publicity, often in the press (83);
are often dialogical, with a text/response/further text structure (84);
may be about something other than what they appear to be (93);
regularly intersect with other quarrels (93).
Early modern French quarrels bear out these observations, as scholars have shown.10 From the glimpse of the querelle des collèges provided above we see that it, too, has almost all of the features that Tadié identifies. What is more, it was conceived of contemporaneously as a querelle, even if that label was not systematically used. While the debate was still underway, for example, some readers were already compiling “recueils” of querelle texts—arranging them in an order that highlighted their dialogical interactions—and librarians were cataloging querelle texts together.11 Many contemporary commentators also recognized (and contributed to) the agonism of the dispute. An Année littéraire article of 1782, for instance, argues that in recent decades, “tandis que des savans s’appliquent dans la retraite à former des citoyens pour l’état, de prétendus beaux esprits, d’agréables ignorans, des parasites & des bouffons couverts du manteau de la philosophie, déclament à la table des riches, contre les pédans & les colleges” (98). In short, this debate that has not previously been seen as a quarrel was, and is, one. However, what is less clear is women’s place in this dispute.
This Quarrel That Is Not One, or Two, but Three
Of some 120 actors in the querelle whose gender is now known, just 3 are women. This is hardly surprising, and not just because this particular quarrel was about boys’ education. Women risked vilification for daring to publish in the period, let alone daring to quarrel. The abbé Augustin Simon Irailh (1717–94), in his four-volume anthology of quarrels, Querelles littéraires, ou Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire des révolutions de la république des lettres, depuis Homère jusqu’à nos jours (1761), treats women who quarrel with misogynistic disdain. In describing a quarrel between Marie de Gournay and Racan, he delights in recounting de Gournay’s humiliation by men and describes her as “vive, impétueuse & vindicative” (1: 166). Meanwhile, in the querelle between Antoine Houdar de La Motte and Anne Dacier following their respective translations of the Iliad, Irailh, although he judges Dacier’s translation in many ways superior, defames Dacier when she dares to quarrel. Irailh describes La Motte’s prefatory discourse to his translation, in which he criticizes Homer’s style, as “écrit & raisonné supérieurement” (2: 309), while Dacier’s response, Des causes de la corruption du goust (1714), in which she defends Homer, is “[un] ouvrage dicté lui-même par le mauvais goût, par la prévention, le fiel & la haine. Que de grossièretés, que de termes injurieux à chaque page! . . . L’auteur, dans son livre, est une femme des halles en furie” (2: 311). Irailh’s ad hominem (ad feminam?) attack of Dacier combines two misogynistic stereotypes of the violent, quarrelsome woman: first, that of the “harengère” or “poissarde”—the vulgar “fish wife”—which Pierre Ronzeaud has shown dates at least back to the Middle Ages; and second, the stereotype of the “furies,” goddesses of the underworld who wreak vengeance on men. While a woman who translates might pass as acceptable, a woman who quarrels does not.
Women were well aware of such reactions. In the Mercure de France of January 1764, under cover of pseudonymity, one “Madame D***” penned a short letter titled “Réflexions sur les hommes,” in which she expresses another fate that commonly awaited women who dared to think or express their ideas:
Qu’une Femme ose tenter de sortir du cercle étroit où son éducation semble la renfermer, on lui prodigue les éloges; on l’élève non-seulement au-dessus de son sexe, mais encore au-dessus des plus illustres Ecrivains. Que cette mème Femme, enhardie par des éloges si flatteurs, use en conséquence du privilége accordé à tout être pensant; à peine daigne-t-on l’écouter. On est si convaincu de la fausseté de ses argumens, que la seule politesse semble engager à y répondre. (43)
When women do offer critical opinions, Madame D*** says, they are simply dismissed by men, as Myriam Dufour-Maître has shown was also the case for “précieuses” in the seventeenth century. Who were the three women, then, who—remarkably—braved these risks and participated in the querelle des collèges?
The first was Adelaïde d’Espinassy, with her Essai sur l’éducation des demoiselles (1764). Little is known about Espinassy, who appears to have been unknown prior to the publication of the Essai—and even after. In 1766, the first volume of her only other known work appeared, Nouvel abrégé de l’histoire de France à l’usage des jeunes gens (1766–71). Commenting on the publication of this manual in the Correspondance littéraire of January 15, 1766, Grimm notes, “je ne sais ce que c’est que Mlle d’Espinassy” (479). In the ‘Épitre dédicatoire’ of the Nouvel abrégé, addressed to queen Marie Leszczyńska, Espinassy writes that this new work is motivated by “le même but qui m’avoit fait prendre la plume [en 1764], je veux dire l’éducation & l’instruction de la jeunesse” (1: vi). Espinassy, then, seems to have been motivated to write by a particular interest in education, inspired by Rousseau’s Émile. And yet, she was not a straightforward admirer of Rousseau’s work.
Espinassy describes her Essai as a reaction against some of Rousseau’s ideas regarding the education of Sophie, Émile’s future wife, and against the neglect of women’s education in contemporary society in general (3–4). Women’s education in eighteenth-century France had changed little since the early seventeenth century and remained a heterogeneous affair. As Martine Sonnet has shown, while a small number of famous convents provided a slightly more expansive education, for those girls whose parents could afford to send them to a typical convent or pension, education “ne dépasse pas l’instruction religieuse, l’alphabétisation et les travaux d’aiguilles” (261). Espinassy objects to the fact that Rousseau’s Sophie is given similarly limited instruction and raised uniquely to become Émile’s wife. “[Rousseau] ne paroît pas juger les femmes capables de soutenir une certaine éducation; elles sont nées, selon lui, que pour plier continuellement sous le joug d’un époux” (4). Countering Rousseau, she states, “[m]a façon de penser est bien différente” (5).
The Essai presents a plan for girls’ education that echoes many of Fénelon’s proposals in his Éducation des filles (1687). In Espinassy’s program, at about seven years old, girls should begin to study catechism, dance, music, domestic handicrafts, basic geometry, and arithmetic; between the ages of twelve and sixteen they should also take up history, geography, and drawing. Around the time of first Communion, a girl should spend a year studying parts of the Old and New Testaments and “quelques livres moraux” (45), before proceeding to secular “lectures” at sixteen. Espinassy advises mothers to direct their daughters, initially, toward history, then mythology and classical poetry translated into French, such as Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, and—if girls must have “de la dissipation dans [leurs] lectures”—fairy tales, moral tales such as Don Quixote or Gil Blas, or well-chosen modern tragedies or comedies (59–61).
Crucially, before eighteen years old a girl should not encounter novels, a genre considered “une prédilection féminine” in the early modern period (Grande 15).
Je trouve un grand danger dans la lecture des Romans, & je ne les voudrois permettre que quand l’esprit est assez formé pour distinguer le vrai, du faux. . . . Quelle idée voulez-vous que la jeune personne prenne, d’après cette lecture? la conséquence m’en paroît simple. L’amour est une passion, dira-t-elle; mais elle mene aux plus grandes choses. (57)
Espinassy fears that novels will persuade girls that love is natural, excusable, and even leads to great things. A similar view was expressed by Fénelon, who argues that by reading novels, a girl “voudroit vivre comme ces princesses imaginaires” (15). Girls were to become virtuous wives and could be led astray by novels, at least, so some in the seventeenth-century querelle des romans argued.12 Camille Esmein-Sarrazin has shown that this polemic was partly about women and the fear of their corruption (68–70). In Espinassy’s discussion of whether novels are suitable for girls, she thus revives these claims of the querelle des romans, and of male pedagogical thinkers on women’s education, and incorporates them into her intervention in the querelle des collèges.
In the Année littéraire’s largely positive review of the Essai, in 1764, Louis-Marie Stanislas Fréron praises Espinassy for her cautious, conservative program, including her proscription of novels. “On ne sçauroit être trop circonspect en présence des enfans, sur-tout en présence d’une fille” (7: 132–33). If a woman novelist, like Madeleine de Scudéry, could defend novels on the grounds of their moral utility, this was because she was addressing primarily women readers already complicit in the consumption of novels (Grande 308–9, 341–42). Put another way, her defense of novels in Clélie (1654–60) offers women novel readers an excuse for a fait accompli. Espinassy, on the other hand, could hardly recommend novels to young girls, certainly not when well-known earlier writers on women’s education (Fénelon and Rousseau) had underlined their threat to “virtue.” To appeal to the male participants and readers of the querelle, Espinassy had to toe this line. Fréron’s satisfied comments imply that she was right to do so.
The second quarrel text by a woman is Joséphine de Monbart’s Sophie, ou l’éducation des filles (1777), the only one of the three women’s texts published under the author’s name. Having been educated first by her mother and later in a convent, the adolescent Joséphine refused an arranged marriage and escaped to Prussia with the man who became her first husband, Louis de Monbart. It was from Prussia that Monbart published most of her works, inspired by Rousseau and by women writers including Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, marquise de Sévigné; Marie-Madeleine Pioche de La Vergne, comtesse de La Fayette; Françoise de Graffigny, and Émilie du Châtelet (Lettres tahitiennes 1). Not limited to educational works, Monbart’s first publication was the semi-autobiographical Loisirs d’une jeune dame (1776), and in 1784 another fictional text appeared, the Lettres tahitiennes, inspired by Louis-Antoine Bougainville’s account of Tahiti in his Voyage autour du monde (1771) and by the vogue for epistolary fictions with “exotic” heroines, as in Graffigny’s Lettres d’une Péruvienne (1747).13 Between these publications, Monbart turned to the subject of women’s education; Sophie was soon followed by a second treatise, De l’éducation d’une princesse (1781). Of the three women who intervened in the querelle, Monbart was the most dogged in denouncing women’s subjugation and the violence they face from men, a subject of almost all her works. One man who escapes Monbart’s critical gaze, however, is Rousseau.
Monbart begins Sophie by defending “ce Jean Jacques, tant lu, si peu compris & si persecuté,” whom she notes has been attacked by querelleurs. She proceeds to comment on the querelle des collèges, as querelleurs often did, but her remarks define her stance as unusual: “[Face à l’Émile], [d]es Instituteurs sévères, moins zélés mais plus orgueilleux, ont crié à l’impiété, au déisme; ils sont resté ensevelis sous leurs préjugés; les institutions des collèges sont demeurées les mêmes; les maîtres sont toujours pédans; les écoliers sont mal instruits, mais enfin ils le sont. . . . [Q]uelque vicieuse que soit cette éducation, elle peut former de grands hommes” (15–16). Monbart acknowledges that the querelle has produced little change in the collèges, but contends that a collège education is not actually that bad—it teaches boys something, which is more than can be said for girls’ education: “Qu’il s’en faut que l’éducation des filles soit susceptible des mêmes ressources!” (16). Monbart agonistically engages not just in the querelle des collèges but with the querelle, challenging its very premise, namely, that the collèges are in dire need of reform. She argues, rather, that it is girls’ education that most immediately requires attention.
Monbart develops the education of Sophie, which Rousseau neglected. At about eight years old Monbart’s Sophie begins Bible study, and shortly after commences lessons in dance, music, drawing, and from the age of twelve, arithmetic. Monbart is less wary of novels than Espinassy; Sophie is encouraged to read carefully chosen novels that supposedly extol virtue, such as Rousseau’s Julie, ou La Nouvelle Héloïse. Sophie and her governess discuss what they have read, and it is through these conversations that Sophie learns good taste and judgment. Her education ends with her entrance into worldly society and preparation for marriage.
Although she praises Rousseau throughout, Monbart’s program for Sophie is very different even to that of Émile, in that reading is at its heart: “En lisant l’esprit s’ouvre, les idées naissent” (167). Nevertheless, Monbart is concerned that Sophie should not read, or learn, the “wrong” things. Transposing a concern of the querelle des collèges onto girls’ education, Monbart considers whether women should learn French or Latin, and concludes resolutely for the former: “[Les langues mortes] ne sont pas faites pour nous [les femmes], & ne peuvent nous être d’aucune utilité. Assez de bons traducteurs nous ont transmis les plus beaux morceaux de l’antiquité” (184). She is also cautious of the sciences; she recommends Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle’s Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes and Noël-Antoine Pluche’s Spectacle de la nature, both works of vulgarization, but contends that Georges-Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon’s encyclopedic Histoire naturelle is “trop savante & surtout beaucoup trop étendue” (179). She concludes that “rien n’est plus ridicule que ces femmes savantes qui se mêlent d’établir des systemes nouveaux . . . il ne nous appartient pas de juger [des sciences], puisque nous ne pouvons les concevoir” (177). Antipathy for the “femme savante” became commonplace in the last quarter of the seventeenth century, as Linda Timmermans has shown, kindled by satirical works such as Molière’s Les Femmes savantes (1672) and Nicolas Boileau’s Satire X (1694) (123–32). Monbart at least appears to have taken on this misogynistic discourse (something I will return to later). Thus, although Sophie calls for better women’s education, “better” does not mean “unlimited.”
The third women’s intervention in the querelle was the anonymous, seven-volume Traité de l’éducation des femmes, et cours complet d’instruction (1779–89), by the comtesse de Miremont.14 Miremont was educated at an Augustinian convent school in Soissons, and spent what Henry de Buttet describes in his biography of Miremont as eight “heureuses années chez ces religieuses” (79). Not long after her marriage, in 1756, to Thomas-Exupère-François, Comte de Miremont, the couple purchased and renovated the Château de Coucy-les-Eppes, in the Aisne. Out of boredom in the winter, Miremont began frequenting salons in Paris, and in 1766 she wrote her first work, the autobiographical roman à clef, the Mémoires de Madame la marquise de Cremy, écrits par elle-même. Miremont became increasingly well-connected in fashionable and literary circles; Samuel-Auguste Tissot was her doctor, she visited Voltaire, and attended salons frequented by d’Alembert and Beaumarchais. In 1779 she published the first volume of her most important work, the Traité de l’éducation des femmes, which (although it remained unfinished at seven volumes, in 1789), was well received in France, Germany, and Austria (De Buttet 90).
Miremont situates herself in a lineage of women who have published texts about, or for use in, girls’ education; she mentions “Mmes de Beaumont & de L***”—surely Madame de Lambert—“[qui] ont osé franchir le premier pas” (I: iv). Yet, this did not stop her from engaging with the male-dominated querelle des collèges. She recognizes “ce nombre d’ouvrages, qui ont paru depuis quelques années sur l’Education” and, like Monbart, she picks a bone not just with one or two men in the querelle, but with all of them: “Envain s’efforcera-t-on de réformer l’éducation des hommes, si l’on ne travaille en même-tems, à créer un autre plan d’éducation pour les femmes” (I: xix). Disappointed by those women “que l’âge le plus mûr retrouve encore amusées par les hochets de l’enfance,” Miremont maintains that their lack of education is to blame for their juvenile behavior: “C’est parce qu’on a manqué de moyens que ces Femmes ont manqué de lumiére” (I: vii). She blames this situation on patriarchal domination, writing, “les hommes nous aiment trop, ou trop peu, pour s’occuper de nous d’une maniere qui nous soit directement utile” (I: iii). Such arguments were common to defenses of women in the querelle des femmes, the long-running debate about women’s status, nature, and capacities.15
Like Espinassy and Monbart, Miremont presents a program for the literary instruction of girls between seven and eighteen years old. However, rather than simply outlining what this program would include, her Traité constitutes the very manual for this curriculum. After an initial treatise on education, the work becomes an anthology of extracts from authorities on subjects as varied as rhetoric, ancient and modern history, physiology, philosophy, and experimental physics. The most “modern” of the three women in this study, Miremont acknowledges authorities including philosophes such as Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Guillaume Thomas François Raynal—a fact that displeased the anti-philosophe Année littéraire, in its 1781 review (8: 248–51). Moreover, Miremont transposes male querelleurs’ interest in reforming boys’ public institutions (the collèges) onto girls’ education. Since communal girls’ education usually occurred in convent settings, as Miremont herself had experienced, she inserts within her Traité a “Projet de réformation pour les Couvens voués à l’Education des jeunes Personnes” (1: 67–93). Quoting at length from Fénelon’s Éducation des filles, the “Projet” focuses on how to reform the education of the nuns who teach girls. Teacher training reform was hotly debated in the querelle des collèges, with participants divided as to whether members of religious orders should be allowed to teach and, if not, how secular teachers should be recruited and formed: in a training institution, or via competitive examination.16 Miremont thus keeps one foot in the querelle des collèges by tackling a subject disputed in this polemic but applying it to women’s education.
Miremont requires would-be teacher-nuns to spend six months studying French grammar and spelling, followed by about a year of geography, religious history, and fables and three years of modern and ancient history alongside “quelques lectures agréables qui leur donne une idée juste des mœurs et des usages de ce siècle” (77). Convent teachers should also study some of Madame de Sévigné’s Lettres and Madame de Lambert’s works (79). Miremont is concerned that nuns should understand worldly affairs and be able to teach girls the skills—notably, literary ones—to deal with them. Indeed, she produces a two-page list of texts that should be in all convent libraries and in the “Belles-Lettres” collection recommends Charles Batteux’s Cours de belles-lettres (1747), a work praised by many in the querelle, and Gabriel-Henri Gaillard’s Rhétorique française, à l’usage des demoiselles (1746), the first literary manual aimed at a female readership and the first to imply that women were capable of studying rhetoric.17
Espinassy, Monbart, and Miremont thus engage with key themes and actors of the querelle des collèges. However, they are fundamentally more interested in rerouting the terms and reformative energy of the querelle toward girls’ education. This leads them to engage with other early modern quarrels relating to women’s education: the querelle du roman and the querelle des femmes. Indeed, in that these women call for better women’s education, their works might more properly be seen as interventions in the querelle des femmes framed in the terms of the querelle des collèges and not vice versa. These texts certainly support Tadié’s observations that quarrels often overlap and can be about something other than what they might seem.
That said, if these works are only ultimately interventions in the querelle des femmes, one might ask why their authors couched them in the terms of the querelle des collèges at all. A major reason was that the latter quarrel was the one dominating bookshops and the press. Not only did the querelle catalyze Espinassy’s, Monbart’s, and Miremont’s own educational thinking, but these women also appear to have recognized that they could capitalize on interest in the educational querelle du jour to redirect its male readers’ attention away from boys’ and toward girls’ education. This is similar to the strategy Helena Taylor identifies in her analysis of Marie-Jeanne L’Héritier’s response to Boileau’s misogynistic Dialogue des héros de roman and Satire X. Taylor shows that L’Héritier couches a defense of women (and thus on one level an act in the querelle des femmes) in the more culturally prestigious terms of the querelle des Anciens et des Modernes, to give her a larger platform from which to reach readers (24). The strategic use of quarrels emerges, then, as a way for early modern writers with little social status, including women, to give their publications greater reach, particularly among the readership with the power to potentially change girls’ educational practices: men.
Quarreling Just Like a Woman
Besides using quarrels as tools to resist systemic subordination, these women writers also adopt discursive strategies for a similar end—strategies one rarely observes in men’s quarrel texts. For a start, they often address their texts to women readers and define women as their judges. Espinassy states that “lorsque je composai cet Essai d’éducation, je n’eus en vue qu’une Niece que j’aime . . . Je comptois donner des conseils à sa Mere, non à d’autres” (v). Miremont, meanwhile, situates herself in the lineage of Madame de Beaumont and Madame de Lambert and remarks that “ces Dames ont écrit pour les Enfans, je voulois écrire pour les Meres” (iv), later adding, “Meres, qui doutez encore, ayez le courage de lire, & vous nous jugerez” (ix). In her literary syllabus, too, she recommends that girls read letters by Madame de Maintenon, de Sévigné, and Antoinette Deshoulières and praises another recent text on education, Madame d’Épinay’s Les Conversations d’Émilie (1774) (235–36, 112). Rather than argue with fellow women, Miremont and Espinassy engage with them irenically, as sources of inspiration and adjudicating authorities. This gender solidarity is absent in interactions between men in the querelle des collèges; their texts, as La Chalotais and Crevier’s show, commonly use agonistic language and posit male judges, such as the public or monarch. By expressing solidarity with women writers, readers, and educators, Espinassy and Miremont seek to build support for their proposals among women as well as among men.
Furthermore, Espinassy and Monbart attack discursive practices and themes that they associate with men’s quarrels. For instance, during a girl’s religious study, Espinassy advises mothers, “éloignez [de votre fille] avec encore plus de soin les livres de parti: une femme n’étant point faite pour les disputes scholastiques” (46). Espinassy seems to be referring to disputes pertaining to matters of religion and philosophy, which might cause a girl to question her faith. Girls are not to read such disputes and, as Monbart underlines, they are certainly not to participate in them.
In an episode during Sophie’s adolescence when her governess is teaching her to judge what she has read, Monbart criticizes a certain type of quarreling:
Nous lisons peu, mais nous méditons nos lectures & . . . nous en causons beaucoup ensemble: Sophie dit son avis, le discute, le prouve quelquefois assez bien; elle apprend ainsi, sans s’en appercevoir les regles de la logique. Lorsque je lui dis que l’on en a fait un art qu’on traite fort sérieusement dans les colleges, elle rit, croyant que je me moque d’elle. Sophie sera bien plus étonnée lorsqu’elle saura que les hommes se déchirent mutuellement pour soutenir une opinion, ou pour en établir une nouvelle: que les philosophes de ce siecle, toujours en guerre les uns contre les autres, ne sont pas même d’accord avec eux-mêmes; qu’ils possedent l’art dangereux de prouver le pour & le contre (dd). Quand elle verra leurs livres pleins de contradictions, de sophismes, . . . elle gémira sur la folie des hommes & bénira son sexe, qui la condamne à une heureuse ignorance . . . (dd) Chacun sait la proposition impie de ce théologien qui, ayant fait un discours sublime sur l’existence de Dieu, offrit de la détruire par des preuves aussi fortes. (159–60)
Here, quarreling is attacked and defined as a male pursuit, by none other than a quarreling woman. Women, meanwhile, are oxymoronically described as being “condemned to blissful ignorance.” These paradoxes require some scrutiny.
First, Monbart’s use of the verb condamner ironically undercuts the idea that women’s ignorance is truly blissful; on the contrary, it frames it as a form of punishment, even imprisonment. But how does this tally with Monbart’s earlier condemnation of “les femmes savantes”? A comment, buried later in her work, might hold the answer. Writing of men’s power over women, Monbart states that “notre vie, celle de nos enfans, notre honneur, nos biens, notre sureté, tout est entre leurs mains; ils peuvent toujours nous rendre aussi malheureuses qu’il leur plait” (209). Her solution is thus: “Il n’est pour nous qu’une seule maniere de gouverner, c’est de savoir faire vouloir aux hommes ce que nous voulons” (209–10). Making men want what she wants involves ventriloquizing misogynistic discourse—paying lip service to men’s prejudices against “les femmes savantes”—to reassure them that she is not promoting “excessive” women’s education, which might threaten men’s power. In sum, Monbart seeks to make her proposals for women’s education as attractive as possible to men. Hers is a strategy of soft power, and it leads to statements that sound like misogyny but serve a different communicative function.18
But what of Espinassy’s and Monbart’s descriptions of quarreling as a male pursuit? This appears illogical, coming from two quarreling women. One way to resolve this paradox is to conclude that these women are not quarreling. Yet, their works have many of the features Tadié identifies as common to quarrels: they are affronted responses (to Émile, to the premise of the querelle des collèges); they employ some agonistic language; they elect judges; they elicit sometimes agnostic press reactions; they overlap with other querelles. The presence of some nonnormative practices of quarreling (irenic engagement with women, for example) does not erase the many normative ones usually associated with men.
There is an element of preterition in Espinassy’s and Monbart’s attacks on quarreling. By echoing the view, expressed by men like Irailh and Rousseau, that quarreling is at best unseemly for a woman, they forestall the potentially damaging accusation that they are quarreling. But, crucially, the mode of quarreling these women condemn is not the one they practice. The quarrels they attack are “disputes scholastiques,” waged by “philosophes,” using the art of logic taught in the collèges. These are quarrels in which “les hommes se déchirent mutuellement” (emphasis added), often pertaining to religious matters. Indeed, Monbart’s enigmatic footnote condemning “[un] théologien” hints at an anecdote in which the cardinal Jacques Davy du Perron (1556–1618) suggested to Henri III that he would first prove, and then disprove, the existence of God.19 This type of dispute was often called a “controverse,” which, as the 1762 Dictionnaire de l’Académie française notes, “se dit plus ordinairement de la dispute qui se fait sur des points de Foi” (391).
The denunciation of this “extreme” brand of quarrel parallels Monbart’s criticism of the especially learned “femme savante.” Although Monbart’s anti-quarrel claims appear paradoxical, their specificity ultimately leaves room for her and other women to participate in public querelles littéraires, like the querelle des collèges, that were not about religion, or bound by scholastic rules. Viewed in the context of misogynistic eighteenth-century French society, women writers’ calls for better girls’ education, for some scope to quarrel, are a pragmatic solution to reclaim a degree of power.
While women today might denounce misogyny with the hashtags #balancetonporc or #metoo, or by reclaiming Boris Johnson’s slur and declaring themselves “girly swots,” the women writing in the querelle des collèges had far less latitude. Their strategies for collective resistance were, by necessity, different. By rehearsing arguments against the “femme savante,” by ventriloquizing the misogynistic stereotype that women must not argue, Monbart appeases the male readership of the querelle and clears a space for women to learn, and to quarrel, at least a little more than usual. For want of a hashtag with which to identify themselves and call women to arms, Espinassy and Miremont adopt longhand discursive tags that serve similar ends, praising women writers and electing women as their judges. Finally, without a ready platform from which to make their case for girls’ educational reform, these women paste their demands onto the pages of the querelle des collèges, overwriting it with other quarrels, other concerns. These women did not have a room of their own, and were not in a position to ask for one. But, collectively, they helped to clear a bit of desk space that those coming after them might use, whether to quarrel or to learn.
Tidman presents the querelle in Ce qui s’enseigne and Querelle des collèges. Historians have studied some of the querelle’s texts from different angles and have emphasized to different degrees the agonism of the debate; see, notably, Marguerite Figeac-Monthus, Natasha Gill, Marcel Grandière, Dominique Julia, Adrian O’Connor, and R. R. Palmer.
For a detailed account of the reasons for attributing this name, see Tidman (Ce qui s’enseigne 100–3).
Some sources spell Monbart’s name as Montbart.
For a history of the collèges and their teaching practices, see Marie-Madeleine Compère.
Larry Norman cautions against oversimplifying the querelle des Anciens et des Modernes by viewing all subsequent literary debates that oppose past and present as extensions of this quarrel (13–14). Following Norman, I read d’Alembert’s article as replaying some of the themes of this querelle in a new context, with different stakes.
Although the royal edict suppressing the Jesuits was not issued until November 1764, the parlements began moving to expel the order in August 1761, and by mid-1762 most Jesuit collèges were abandoned. For more on the Jesuit expulsion, see O’Connor (509–17) and Van Kley.
O’Connor (48) follows John McManners (509) in calculating 111 Jesuit collèges in 1761, while Julia (Trois couleurs 18) and Figeac-Monthus (22) put the figure at 106.
For more on Rousseau’s place in the querelle and responses to Émile in the context of the querelle, see Tidman, Querelle des collèges.
An initial corpus of the querelle, which includes standalone publications and articles in the Année littéraire, is in Tidman, Ce qui s’enseigne 229–67. An updated corpus, including Mercure de France and Journal de Trévoux articles, will appear in Tidman, Querelle des collèges. The figure given here relates to the updated corpus.
Much recent work has stemmed from the French National Research Agency–funded Agon research project on early modern French and British quarrels, www.agon.paris-sorbonne.fr/fr (accessed April 2, 2020). For a selection of recent scholarship, see the special issues of Littératures classiques edited by Ferreyrolles and by Hostiou and Viala; and Hostiou and Tadié.
On these practices, see chapters 3 and 5 of Tidman, Querelle des collèges.
For instance, in the preface to his Dialogue des Héros de roman (composed 1664–65, published 1688), Nicolas Boileau contends that Honoré d’Urfé’s L’Astrée (1607–27) “fust fort vitieuse, ne preschant que l’Amour et la mollesse” (443). Antoine Furetière parodies this idea in his Roman bourgeois (1666) when his female reader, Javotte, is “poisoned” by reading L’Astrée. For more on claims about the corrupting effect of novels, see Grande 339–41.
See the recent critical edition of Lettres tahitiennes edited by Laure Marcellesi.
For more on this work, see Cherrad, “De l’éducation des mères” 93–102.
Joan Kelly offers a good summary of this querelle.
The royal government showed support for the latter with the creation of the first agrégation, in 1766.
Viala considers the work in Galanterie (47).
Deborah Cameron recognizes that “there is seldom if ever a one-to-one mapping between linguistic form and communicative function” (45), in her essay, with Fiona McAlinden and Kathy O’Leary, on women’s use of tag questions. In addition, Grande shows that seventeenth-century women novelists similarly advanced apparently misogynistic discourse to serve a contrary communicative end (129–32).
The anecdote is recorded by Pierre de l’Estoile, dated November 25, 1583, and transmitted in eighteenth-century publications of his journals. It is also reported in Jean-Baptiste Ladvocat’s Dictionnaire historique portatif, first published in 1752 and republished multiple times over the century.